A Music Director's Dilemma

Practical Advice for Working with Instrumentalists

Here’s the typical music director’s dilemma: you want to use instrumentalists in the service because that adds a unique dimension to your worship, but you also know there’s a wide range of ability among your willing volunteers; many, if not all, are amateurs.

How can you select repertoire that honors their capabilities and helps them reach their full potential in using their gifts to serve the Lord? Here’s some practical advice for doing just that.

Selecting Players

It’s certainly possible for an amateur to be an artist-caliber player—he may have been a college music major, for instance, or maybe he simply had excellent training and opportunities from an early age. More likely, though, most of your players developed their talents through elementary and secondary school music programs, and they come with a wide range of abilities.

To audition, or not to audition? That’s your choice, but many players will find a request to audition intimidating and choose not to participate. Instead, you might informally ask players about their background to determine their capability. The conversation might go like this: “I understand you played trombone in your high school band. Do you still play? You do? That’s great! What type of music do you play? Do you perform with any ensembles?” Or, “Your mom just told me you play violin in your middle school orchestra. What music did your group play in their last concert? Do you take private lessons? Have you ever played solos or in small ensembles?”

If you think someone has the ability to play in the service, ask him or her to join an ensemble that accompanies congregational singing. Choose easy music, and pair the new person on the same part with a more experienced player. This will give you an idea of the player’s skill in a low-pressure setting and help determine whether they’re ready for more challenging repertoire.

Choosing Music

Because many inexperienced players do not count rhythms well, avoid music that is highly syncopated or that contains several rhythmic strands sounding at the same time. Also limit the number of technical passages that require fast articulation and finger dexterity. Passages with numerous sixteenth notes will likely not sound satisfactory unless they are performed by a reasonably accomplished player.

You’ll also want to consider issues of range and endurance. Brass players who perform infrequently, for example, will likely not be able to play in the upper register for extended periods—if at all. Also, make sure both brass and woodwind players have frequent opportunities to rest, since intonation and tone quality suffer if embouchure muscles become tired.

One way to prevent fatigue and make the music more interesting is to alternate accompaniment of hymn stanzas with and without instruments. Of course, it is also possible to alternate which instruments play on any given verse. Use woodwinds and strings, for example, for stanzas that are particularly reflective, and have brass accompany those with triumphant or majestic texts.

Range can also be an issue for string players in elementary and middle school who may not be able to move the left hand down the finger board for higher notes. This technique is called shifting. See the beginning string ranges illustrated (Table 1) for pitches that do not require players to shift out of first position.

Other Considerations

Try to have at least one electronic tuner on hand to assist players in tuning their own instruments. Some instrumentalists have difficulty tuning by simply matching a pitch from the piano or organ. Tuners also help young string players who may still rely on their teacher to tune the instrument for them. If you’re working with several elementary or middle school string players, it may be helpful to have an experienced adult on hand to assist with this process.

String players usually tune from A=440, though it may be helpful to sound the pitches of the other open strings as well. Begin with A=440, then sound D, G. Violins and basses will also need an E, while violas and cellos will need a C. Most woodwind and brass players are accustomed to tuning to Bb in a concert band setting, though A is more effective for woodwinds and French horns. Be aware that wind players on transposing instruments may not know what tuning note corresponds to A or Bb on their instrument. (For more on the transposition of music, check out “No Magic, No Mystery: A Primer on Transposing Music” by Robert Nordling, RW 87)

Make sure all players have a part that’s transposed into the correct key for their instrument, as most will not be able to transpose at sight. (This may also be true of experienced musicians.) Although most professionals can read straight from the hymnal, even college music majors may not be proficient enough to do this accurately. By providing the correct parts, you’ll insure efficient use of rehearsal time and avoid potential embarrassment for your musicians. Using notation software such as Finale or Sibelius will enable you to quickly transpose hymns and other music for any instrument.

Table 1 illustrates transpositions, tuning notes, and written ranges for instrumentalists at various levels. Of course, ranges are approximate: many players will have a slightly wider or narrower range than indicated. Ranges of pitched percussion depend on the size of the instrument. Marimbas, for example, typically span three to five octaves, while the range of a timpani depends on its diameter.

Although most people who play band and orchestra instruments have been trained to read music, many guitarists, electric bassists, keyboardists, and drummers have learned to play by ear or through reading tablature and chord symbols. These musicians are often quite proficient, provided they have the music in advance and sufficient rehearsal time prior to the service. You may also want to provide these players with recordings of the music for home practice.

One final word about the pianists and organists we rely on to provide hymn accompaniments, preludes, offertories, and recessionals for our weekly worship. Although these musicians are usually paid for their work, they have often developed their skills on the job rather than through years of traditional music instruction.

Here are a few strategies for nurturing a happy relationship with these stalwart musicians:

  • Plan worship music well in advance to allow ample time for practice.
  • Avoid switching hymns at the last minute or asking for additional music right before the service.
  • Ask your keyboardist for input on the music selections, as he or she can provide insight into the difficulty level and amount of time needed for preparation.

More than one keyboardist has left his or her post after being requiring to play in an unfamiliar style or without adequate practice time. We cannot afford to lose these important individuals, especially given the tremendous shortage of capable organists and pianists that is developing.

The good news is that, with careful planning and a careful choice of repertoire (see Table 2), musicians of all ages and abilities can use their talents in service to the congregation and for the glory of God. Surely that’s motivation enough to find out their capabilities and plan accordingly.


Table 2. Resources for Instrumentalists in Worship

Title: A Practical Guide to Arranging Music

Author: Hal Hopson

Publisher: Hope Publishing

Price: $24.95

Description: This how-to guide for arranging music for worship is culled from material first presented in the first five volumes of Hal Hopson’s “Creative Church Musician” series. Covering the unique aspects of arranging for organ, choirs, handbells and other instruments, this is an invaluable mini-course for the budding church music arranger.

Title: Creative Use of Instruments in Worship

Author: Hal Hopson

Publisher: Hope Publishing

Price: $49.95

Description: This text provides excellent material and ideas for using instruments in worship. Part 1 contains a mini-course in arranging hymn tunes for various instruments. Part 2 offers a wealth of material for any combination of instrumentalists, from one player to a full ensemble using almost 300 hymn tunes. The parts may be reproduced for your instrumentalists.

Title: More Creative Ways to use the Choir, Organ, Handbells, and Other Instruments in Worship

Author: Hal Hopson

Publisher: Hope Publishing

Price: $29.95

Description: This volume adds over 100 timesaving ideas and reproducible examples to the contents of the five previously published volumes. All the musical examples can be copied for your musicians. Includes a hymn tune index for all the books in the series.

Title: The Instrumental Resource for Church and School

Author: Julie Barrier, Jim Hansford, Mark Johnson (2002)

Publisher: Church Street Press

Price: $54.95

Description: An in-depth study of methods and materials that will prove to be invaluable for persons involved in church and school instrumental music. Featured are a biblical perspective on instruments in worship; practical applications for increasing the size of your program; beginning a Fine Arts Academy; instrumental methods, maintenance, and materials; and arranging music to suit your needs.

Title: “Praise the Lord with Strings and Flute”

Author: Phillip M. Hash

Publisher: Reformed Worship 81, September 2006

Description: www.reformedworship.org/magazine/archive.cfm

Phillip M. Hash (pmh3@calvin.edu) teaches music education at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 89 © September 2008, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.